By Libby Casey
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar says problems at the federal Minerals Management Service may have contributed to last month’s offshore oil rig disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.
Salazar testified before Congress today for the first time since the Deepwater Horizon sank on April 22nd. He says the responsibility is shared.
Did the country as a whole, the US Congress, the Department of the Interior, the oil and gas industry, and everyone else affected by this decision become lax? I would say yes, the answer is yes, and that’s why there should be a collective and shared responsibility relative to how we respond to the problem at hand.
Salazar says the Minerals Management Service, which oversees offshore oil and gas leases, needs a house-cleaning. He says that effort began a year-and-a-half ago, and is continuing. The Secretary says solving the problems that led to the oil rig disaster must start at his Department.
There are some bad apples at MMS and we have taken care of them, and to the extent that any were involved in negligence or failure they will also be held accountable. We went through some changes made in the past year.
Last week Salazar announced that M-M-S will be split into two branches, one that regulates safety and environment, and one that collects revenue – and he said today that he’ll soon announce more reorganization plans.
He says the President will call for an independent commission to look at the Gulf accident. It will be similar to those that investigated the space shuttle Challenger explosion, and the nuclear accident at Three Mile Island.
In the case of the Challenger incident, it essentially put the space shuttle program on delay for about a two-and-a-half year period. In the case of the Three Mile Island investigation and the blow of its reactor, it shut down the nuclear industry for 30 years. So how we handle this issue is one of highest importance.
Republican Senators criticized Salazar, claiming that the Obama Administration’s initial response was slow, but he held fast that they acted quickly, including sending down his Deputy Secretary the day after the rig sank without time to even grab a change of clothes or toothbrush.
Democratic Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon berated the M-M-S, and accused it of being in denial about safety problems for years.
WYDEN: Do you believe that Minerals Management has adequately regulated blowout preventers?
SALAZAR: No, the answer is no. I think there is additional work that should’ve been done with respect to blow out prevention mechanisms. Obviously there are multiple redundancies that are built in. This incident never should have happened because of the failsafe kinds of procedures and redundancies that are in place. But it did happen.
Today’s hearing focused on the deep water drilling done in the Gulf, but there are implications for development in shallow regions, including off Alaska. Shell plans to drill exploratory wells this summer in the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas, and recently pledged increased safety measures like testing its blowout preventer once a week instead of once every 14 days.
Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski, the Energy Committee’s head Republican, asked about the difference between drilling in deepwater verses shallow.
MURKOWSKI: Do you envision a new and perhaps enhanced set of spill containment and response that is directed specifically to the deep water, as a consequence of this tragedy?
SALAZAR: Yes. The answer to that is yes, Senator Murkowski. I imagine the 30 day report to the President will have a number of recommendations that deal with safety enhancements.
The report being prepared for President Obama is due later this month. The Interior Department repeated today that it’s in a “pause-mode,” and that any decisions about permitting throughout the country – including Alaska – are on-hold until after the report is finished.